Frederick Beiser
The Romantic Imperative

They argued that while philosophy cannot stimulate action nor religion convince reason, art has the power to inspire us to act according to reason. Because it so strongly appeals to the imagination, and because it so deeply effects our feelings, art can move people to live by the high moral ideals of a republic.

Ultimately, then, the romantics sought to replace the traditional role of religion with art as the incentive and stimulus for morality. Hence they developed ideas for a modern mythology, a new Bible, and a restored church. Now the artist would take over the ancient function of the priest.

This case for the power of art to educate humanity was first put forward by Schiller, but it soon became a leitmotiv of the romantic movement. It is a central theme of Novalis's Heinrich van Ofterdingen, of Friedrich Schlegel's Ideen, of Wackenroder's Herzensergieftungen eines kunstliebenden Klosterbruders, and of Tieck's Pram Sternbalds Wanderungen. Nowhere does it emerge with more simplicity and clarity, however, than in a later work of high romanticism, Heinrich von Kleist's short story Heilige Cacilie oder die Macht der Musik.

It is very idealistic, to say the least, to assume that we can become better people simply by listening to music, reading novels, and attending plays. If art does have that effect, one is tempted to say, that is probably because people are already predisposed to it, and so already educated for it. But then the whole case for art is caught in a vicious circle: art educates humanity only if people are already educated.

The charge of naivete is one of the most common objections to Schiller's argument, and the reputation of the romantics for hopeless idealism is largely based on it. But this criticism rests on a very superficial understanding of the role of art in romantic education. When the romantics wrote of aesthetic education they were not simply referring to the effect works of art have on moral character. They had something more in mind. But what?

Exactly how the romantics understood aesthetic education becomes clear from a close reading of Schiller's Briefe. It is striking that, in the tenth letter, Schiller virtually concedes the whole charge of naivite. He admits that art will educate only the virtuous, and he notes that the periods when art flourished were also those when morals declined. But, after accepting these points, Schiller then turns his argument in a new direction. The question for him is not whether art has an effect on moral character, but whether beauty is an essential component of human perfection itself. Schiller's argument is that if we perfect ourselves—if we form our various powers into a whole—then we will become like works of art. To perfect ourselves is to unify the form of our reason with the content of our sensibility; but the unity of form and content is what is characteristic of beauty itself. Hence aesthetic education does not consist in having our characters formed by works of art but in making our characters into works of art.

Schiller's most detailed account of how a person can become a work of art appears in his treatise Anmut und Wurde. Here he puts forward his ideal of 'the beautiful soul' (die schone Seele), the person whose character is a work of art because all his or her actions exhibit grace. For Schiller, a graceful action is one that shows no sign of constraint—whether that of a physical need or a moral imperative—and that reveals the spontaneity and harmony of a person's whole character. Such an action does not stem from sensibility alone, as if it were the result of natural need, and still less from reason alone, as if it were the product of a moral command; rather it flows from the whole character, from reason and sensibility acting in unison. The beautiful soul does not act from duty contrary to inclination, or from inclination contrary to duty, but from inclination according to duty. Such a spontaneous inclination is not, however, the product of the desires and feelings that are given by nature, but the result of our moral education, the discipline and training of virtue. In a graceful action, then, our desires and feelings are neither repressed according to reason, nor indulged according to sensibility, but refined and ennobled, or, to use a modern term, 'sublimated.'

Schiller's ideal of the beautiful soul gives a completely new perspective on how art motivates moral action. It is not that contemplating works of art inspires us to do good deeds, but that there is an aesthetic pleasure inherent in human excellence, which serves as an incentive to attain and maintain it. The stimulant to moral perfection does not derive from any work of art but simply from the pleasure involved in the exercise of characteristic human activities. Like most moralists, Schiller maintains that virtue brings its own reward, a unique kind of pleasure; he simply adds that this pleasure is essentially aesthetic, because achieving human perfection is like creating a work of art.

Schiller's argument in behalf of aesthetic education ultimately depends on a theory of beauty as perfection. Such a theory could easily be generalized and extended to whatever is capable of perfection, whether it is an object in nature, an individual person, or the state and society itself. This was a temptation that neither Schiller nor the romantics could resist. They broadened their case for the primacy of the aesthetic in human life by also applying it to the state and society. They argued that the perfect society or state is also a work of art. In the final letter of the Briefe, for example, Schiller wrote of his Utopia as an aesthetic state (asthetischen Staat), which, like a work of art, unites the different members of society into a harmonious whole. In his Glauben und Liebe Novalis imagined a poetic state in which the monarch is the poet of poets, the director of a vast public stage in which all citizens are actors. And in his early manuscript Versuch einer Theorie des geselligen Betragens Schleiermacher imagined an ideal society in which individuals form a beautiful whole through the free interaction of personalities and the mutual exchange of ideas. Schiller, Novalis, and Schleiermacher all assume that the perfect society or state is like a work of art because there is an organic unity between the individual and the social whole, which is governed neither by physical nor moral constraints but only free interaction.

The early romantic ideal of Utopia was therefore the creation of a social or political work of art. This aesthetic whole would be a Bildungsanstalt, a society in which people would educate one another through the free exchange of their personalities and ideas.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.